Barbara Stanwyck plays the title social climber who gets involved with John Boles, not long after reading in the papers that he has called off wedding plans with Barbara O’Neil because his family just lost most of its money, and he felt she deserved better. Everything goes swimmingly between Stella and her new man, and they even have a daughter together, whilst O’Neil has also moved on with another man and had two children. Unfortunately, their class difference and Stella’s deep insecurities eventually put too much of a strain on the couple, so that when he gets a job offer in another state, Stella stays behind, ending their relationship, though Stella refuses to divorce him. She also starts spending more time with her boozy pal Ed Munn (Alan Hale), whilst Boles gets back with the now widowed O’Neil and wants a divorce from Stella. Stella’s daughter grows up, now played Anne Shirley, and it is around this time that Stella starts to realise the negative impact (or what she perceives as such) she has on her daughter’s happiness as her daughter takes up with a rich man of her own.
This 1937 soap opera from director King Vidor (“The Mask of Fu Manchu”, “The Wizard of Oz”, “War and Peace”) is pretty solid stuff and holds up rather well all these years later. It would be, however, a much lesser film without the fine talents of Alan Hale, Barbara O’Neil, Anne Shirley, and especially Barbara Stanwyck. Personally, I prefer Stanwyck in her steelier, stronger roles, but she’s a helluva actress who could do anything, really. Bette Davis would’ve been too bitchy and imperious, Shelley Winters wasn’t around in 1937, so Stanwyck was the right actress for the job here. I do wish, however, that Stella were made to be more likeable. The film ultimately wants us to see the good in Stella, and yes she does do something rather selfless eventually, but for the most part she is a wannabe social climber. Stanwyck and the very fine Anne Shirley (better than most actresses her age would’ve been in the part) do a good job of making you understand and ultimately sympathise with the deeply insecure Stella, but it’s hard work getting there. I admire the filmmakers for giving us a protagonist who isn’t always faultless, but I don’t think it was necessary to have made it such hard work to make her likeable. Meanwhile, a wonderfully immature Alan Hale almost steals the show as a heavy-drinking would-be suitor for Stella. Almost creepily gregarious and fun-loving, he’s a big kid and that’s not usually a good thing in a potential suitor. He’s basically a drunken loser who isn’t as charming or fun as alcohol makes him think he is, and one look on Shirley’s face lets you know that he’s not just a harmless drunk, either. Barbara O’Neil is immediately wonderful and warm, the actress being best-known for later playing Scarlett O’Hara’s mother in “Gone With the Wind”.
The one real downsides to the film (aside from the almost Prissy-esque giggling black maid character) come in the form of John Boles, a tedious and bland leading man, and a really choppy narrative. Otherwise, this is solid stuff and probably even worthier to those who enjoy this kind of soap opera material. I think Stanwyck should’ve won the Oscar for this, and probably a few other performances in her career, too, but had to be content with a mere nomination in this case. See it for Barbara, she was a helluva fine talent. Based on a novel by Olive Higgins Prouty (“Now, Voyager”), the screenplay is by Sarah Y. Mason (“Little Women”) and Victor Heerman (“Little Women”).